Why do Schedules, Routines, and Predictability Get a Bad Rap?

by | Mar 24, 2014

“You must plan to be spontaneous” David Hockney

So, when I told my husband that I was going to write about the importance of schedules, routines, and the advantages of predictability in life, he said something along the lines of, “That’s great – but can you do it without saying “predictable” or “routine?” He thinks that the whole idea is unpleasant because nobody wants to be “predictable” or “routine.”

Travel and the time change just knocked us off of a routine. We were almost in a good routine of (get this) waking up at 5am to be at the gym for 6am. Neither of us are morning people, but it is the best time for us to work out. If we don’t go early, we don’t go at all. We had been at it for about a month. Now we are starting over….

Why do “routine” and “predictable” get such a bad rap?

I get it. Everyone wants to be spontaneous, flexible, and able to roll with things…like when life was simple and easy (when mom and dad paid most of the bills!). When the fundamentals of life are taken care of – cooking, cleaning, insurance, utilities, etc. – you have the framework and freedom that allow for spontaneity.

More than that, having relief from the mundane aspects of living frees incredible amounts of working memory so that you can be more mentally nimble and intelligent.

Once you assume the travails of everyday life, having a predictable routine can once again free up that valuable working memory. The more useful routines you have in place, the more “automated” your life becomes.

Routines are helpful!

Of course, getting into a routine takes (gulp) effort. Creating a habit generally takes dedication and training. When you repeat a behavior over and over again, it creates strong synaptic connections in your brain. Once established, your new habit can be your best friend and support system. 

Free your working memory so that you can focus better and take in more of the information that you want – without getting overwhelmed.

In a 2011 study, researchers at Rice University led by Chandramallika Basak found that, “Predictability can free up resources so a person can effectively multitask…When you do the same sequence over and over again, your memory can be partially automatized so you have the ability to do another task concurrently.”

A beneficial routine can act as a good fallback when stress weakens your resolve.

A 2013 study done at the University of Southern California revealed that people tend to fall back on their established habits in time of stress. Test subjects were observed throughout the semester and during final exam time. Almost all of the students reverted to their habits and established routines – gym goers went to the gym to relieve stress, doughnut eaters at more junk food.

Your habits will be your fallback – make sure you establish good ones!

Here are a few tips that you can use to establish your routine.

Remember to be nice to yourself. This process takes time and mentally berating yourself for missing a gym class or “not sticking to the plan” is bad for your morale and counterproductive. Also, the time it takes to establish a routine varies by person and by routine. Keep that in mind as you begin to make changes.

Set an intention or a goal and write it down.

Seeing your goals on paper makes them more real, gives them credibility, and increases the likelihood that you will hold yourself accountable. It also offers a great way for you to track your progress.

Work with your existing routine

If you have just changed routines – like when you graduate and begin studying for the bar exam – a large share of your prior routine will vanish. You may no longer have a set time to wake up, go to sleep, or eat meals.

Take whatever you can of the old routine and hang on to it until you adjust. Keep your existing routine intact if you can. Your schedule will change. Circumstances will change. Your routine, however, can act as a stable framework that will keep you from going too far off track.

Change one thing at a time (or a few small things).

Writing your goals down will reveal any over ambition on your part. If you try to change too many things at the same time, it’s a set up for failure. Work with your existing routine to make small adjustments at first.

Remember past, successful routines.

Think about times when you were in a routine that worked well for you and supported your goals. Use that as a model to a better routine that supports your current goals.

 Keep at it!

Routines can be fragile – especially during that delicate time when you are actively establishing your new, beneficial routine. What can you do when holidays, work trips, or other intervening factors conspire to throw you off of your mission of establishing your shiny, new routine? Stay the course.

For example, if you skip the gym, find something else to do that counts as exercise (or just extra calorie burn). It can be as easy as working at your computer standing up. Every bit makes a difference.

You will be thrown off of your routine from time to time. When you are back in your element, jump back into your routine as quickly as possible. Training your brain is like training a vine up a trellis. Just keep on showing it where to go. Eventually, your routine will guide you. It will also help you through stressful times by letting you default to your own “automated systems” thus freeing up the working memory that you need to perform at the top of your game.